Going For Four
Jan. 22, 2009
By Larry Watts
Jessie Vetter can't remember the last time she had a paying job. Nor can the fifth-year senior at the University of Wisconsin remember the last time she filed a federal income tax report.
But at the rate she's been playing on the hockey rink, big dividends have been pouring in for the Badgers and the U.S.A. as well.
"My mother keeps asking me what I'm going to do with this sociology degree I'm earning," she says laughing. "I don't know, but as long as this hockey thing keeps going, I'm going to keep living off my parents as long as I can."
This hockey thing has already taken Vetter and the Badgers to the Frozen Four three straight years, winning the championship the first two times and bowing in the title tilt last year. And on the international stage, Vetter should be considered the front runner for the goalie slot on the 2010 Olympic squad after leading Team USA to the World Championships title last spring and the Four Nations Cup crown in the fall.
"Asking me to pick a greater thrill is impossible to answer," she says. "In one case you're playing for your country and you don't see those people very often. The college team is so much closer because you're reaching your goal with all your friends."
And the 23-year-old, who first suited up as a goalie while trying to reject tennis balls in the basement of her parents' home in Cottage Grove, Wis., still has all her teeth.
"I'm hoping to keep them for a long time," she says.
Those basement antics carried on to street hockey games on her block. And whether it was in front of the goal for hockey and soccer or behind the plate for baseball, which she played with the boys until eighth grade, Vetter always wanted to be the one putting on the equipment.
"If there was equipment, I wanted to play the sport," she says. "I would do anything to play that sport with the other kids."
Skating since the age of 3, Vetter's parents enrolled her in a hockey program two years later. At the age of 10, she joined her first travel hockey team and she immediately gravitated to the goalie cage.
"I learned real soon that they don't substitute for the goalies very often," she says.
When she joined the boys' team at Monona Grove High School, success didn't come often, but the lessons were invaluable. Although she was making 45-50 saves a night, there were also several nights when the opposing teams were scoring eight or nine goals.
"I guess you could say I got my battle stripes in high school," Vetter says. "But it was a great experience because I was getting tested by some of the best hockey players in the state. I think it made my transition to college hockey a lot easier."
But first Vetter had to make a choice. She had also been the starting goalie on her high school soccer team all four years, winning the state title the first three seasons and bowing in the title game on a penalty kick as a senior. She was a three-time all-state selection as a goalie.
"For once I didn't have to worry about all the equipment; I had this nice pair of gloves and a really cool jersey," she says. "I visited Wisconsin during my junior year and they talked to me about playing both sports. However, I realized the two seasons overlapped too much and there would be little time left for my studies. And hockey has always been my true love."
However, things didn't start out at Wisconsin the way Vetter had planned. With two older goalies already on the roster, head coach Mark Johnson asked her to take a redshirt season.
"I'm not going to lie, I was really against that at first," she says. "But as everything has turned out in the long run, it was a great decision on coach Johnson's part. He finally convinced me when he told me my final year would lead me right to the Olympic year (2010 in Vancouver)."
As it turned out, her wait to get in front of the cage would be even longer. Prior to her redshirt season, Vetter contacted mononucleosis ("I couldn't even practice because my spleen was so big") and she didn't see her first action until Dec. 3 and made her first start the following night. From that point until the start of the NCAA tournament, she split starts with senior Meghan Horras. She wound up posting school single-season records for goals against average (0.78) and save percentage (.962).
But at the start of the NCAA playoffs, Johnson decided to go with one goalie. He selected Vetter.
"It was a tough decision and I know I would have been upset if it had gone the other way," Vetter says. "Meghan had a terrific year and she really handled the decision well and provided great support."
After starting out the tournament with a 2-1 double-overtime victory over Mercyhurst, Vetter stoned St. Lawrence and Minnesota Duluth (in the championship) with a pair of shutouts. Vetter, who ended the year with a shutout streak of 200 minutes and 43 seconds, was named the most valuable player of the Frozen Four, the first time a goalie and a freshman has received that honor.
The following year, Vetter received first-team All-America recognition as the Badgers repeated their Frozen Four title. Her season included a 20-1-3 record with 10 shutouts and she became the first goalie in NCAA history to post a goals against average below 1.00 (0.83). Her streak of 448 minutes and 32 seconds without allowing a goal was an NCAA record for both men and women.
After beating Minnesota Duluth for the national title two years in a row, the Bulldogs turned the tables on the Badgers with a 4-0 victory in last year's championship.
"Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth have always been our biggest rivals," says Vetter, who has twice been named first-team All-Western College Hockey Association and has raised her NCAA record for career shutouts to 33. "Duluth always has a lot of foreign players on its team and they have several tricks up their sleeves."
But Vetter is already a veteran when it comes to facing foreign teams. In 2007, she was in net when the United States bowed to defending Olympic champion Canada in the title game of the World Championships. Team USA turned around and got its revenge this year, edging the Olympic champs 4-3 to win the gold at the World Championships in Harbin, China and then beat Canada 3-2 in the finals of the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid.
"It's really hard to describe the thrill of beating Canada," she says. "Several players from the Olympic team were still playing for Canada. They do such a great job of keeping their older players in shape so they can keep bringing them back."
Vetter, who posted 21 saves in the finals of the World Championship, still remembers how quickly the Canadians can turn the game around. The U.S. had taken a 4-1 lead into the final period, when Canada struck for two goals on a pair of power plays within a span of 1:30.
"If I was thinking about the postgame celebration, it sure didn't last long," she says. "They just kept coming after us, one power play after another. International rules in hockey are a lot like basketball, you touch someone and you'll go to the penalty box. Those two goals came so fast that I just told myself, 'Relax and take deep breaths.'
"Everyone probably still thinks Canada is No. 1, but now they know about us. I can't imagine anything greater than playing them again in Vancouver. That place (Canada) is hockey crazy. I like their song (national anthem), but I just don't want to hear it when they win."
While other seniors will be hitting the job market this summer, Vetter will be training for the U.S. team trials to be conducted in Blaine, Minn. this August. The only gold she has her eyes on these days is a medal around her neck.
"It looks like mom and dad will have to wait at least another year for me to start earning some money," she says with a laugh. "But if everything works out, they can make a nice road trip up to Vancouver to see me."